Wednesday, April 18, 2012

A Quick (But Still Soccer Related) Interlude

I still owe a full post related to Arsenal's home defeat to Wigan but playoff hockey and a generally busy schedule are keeping me from getting to it. In the meantime, please enjoy some thoughts from the first leg of the Champions League semifinal between Real Madrid and Bayern Munich. This match was played in Munich (the pre-chosen neutral site of the eventual championship game, FYI) and was won 2-1 by Bayern.

Bayern Munich Were the Better Team

It is at least somewhat strange to think of perennial German and European powerhouse Bayern as the underdog, but they assuredly were coming into this match. However, they acquitted themselves well at home and dominated the majority of yesterday's game. Frank Ribery was dangerous on the ball, Toni Kroos held play together well in the middle of the field, and Mario Gomez was always a threat up front to poach a goal. The true test for Bayern was after Real Madrid scored in the 53rd minute, a tap-in off the foot of Mesut Ozil. In a game the home side controlled up to that point, the "better" team had just secured a crucial away goal and could possibly ride that momentum to further tallies. Instead, Bayern attacked with renewed vigor and dominated both possession and the match from there on out. The German team was always the more likely to score and although my note originally said "Bayern better side but unlucky to draw," Gomez slotted home the winner in the 90th minute to secure the win. All of this bodes well for Bayern, however...

Real Madrid Was Playing For a Draw or One Goal Defeat

Once Real secured the away goal (an absolutely crucial factor when playing these home and home rounds), they went into shutdown mode and simply wanted to make sure the match didn't get out of hand. Let me be clear: this is not meant as an excuse for Real or an insult to Bayern. Bayern dominated the second half after Real's goal and rightfully so. However, Real was most obviously not pressing up into the attack, content to allow Bayern possession and try to keep them from putting together an end result. Of course Real would have been more pleased with a 1-1 draw, but they also knew that a 2-1 loss was far from lethal. For those unfamiliar, Champions League elimination rounds are played with a game at each competitor's stadium rather than one match at a neutral site (save the championship game). Obviously if a team wins both games or wins one while drawing the other, they advance. However, if both teams win a game or both games are a draw, the first tiebreaker is number of goals scored. If Team A wins the first game 5-0 and Team B wins the second game 1-0, Team A rightfully advances. If, however, both teams have an equal number of goals then in this specific situation, where the goal total is equal, away goals are counted as two goals. For example, if Team A wins 3-2 and Team B wins 1-0, both teams have scored three goals. However, Team B has two away goals, so they break the tie and win 5-3 "on aggregate."

What this means is that all Real needs to do is win their home match 1-0 and they will advance (2 goals for Bayern, 2 goals for Real, but 1 away goal for Real). Real must win of course to match Bayern's win, but Bayern has to keep it a one goal game (or better) and they have to score a goal as well. That's a tall order going to the Bernabeu where it seems that the only team that can beat Real is Barcelona. At home, with the fans behind them and a new gameplan, Real will put Bayern under constant pressure and try to run the German team into the ground. Real gets forward with amazing pace and players like Christiano Ronaldo and Karem Benzema are threats to score at all times. This isn't to say that Bayern cannot prevail; it just means that a 2-1 win in Munich most assuredly does not mean that things are over.

Bayern Won Because of Their Midfield Play

The most important takeaway from this game for me was how Bayern controlled the middle third of the field and kept some of Real's most influential players from making their mark on the game. I mentioned before that Kroos did an excellent job linking up with players and keeping possession, but Luis Gustavo was also impressive winning the ball and darting forward with controlled runs. Bastian Schweinsteiger was not his usual self but he definitely did not look out of place or helpless, despite being pulled off for Thomas Muller in the second half. Frank Ribery was the more dangerous wing player but Arjen Robben had his moments on the right and used his reputation for cutting to the inside to his advantage several times to reach the end line on runs. Perhaps more surprising than Bayern's solid play was the near irrelevance of the Real midfield. Mesut Ozil is a very talented and creative attacking midfielder, but save for the sequence leading to the goal, he was kept quiet. Sami Khedira and Xabi Alonso generally do a good job of controlling the game with a combination of steel and insightful passing, but neither could make their mark and settle things down for Madrid. Bayern's transition and possession game were both superior to that of Real's and it will be interesting to see if this was solely because of Real's "keep it close" strategy or if Bayern's midfield is that imposing.

Christiano Ronaldo Was Mostly Invisible

Christiano Ronaldo was a noticeable casualty of Real's bend-but-don't-break strategy and Bayern's subsequent (or unrelated, depending on your point of view) dominance in midfield. He had the assist on Ozil's goal, yes. But the ball only came back to him because he muffed his shot following Karem Benzema's beautiful wide pass and his set-up was simply keeping the ball in play. For large portions of the game, he was reduced to ball chasing or hold-up play, neither of which really impacted the overall flow. He did have a couple of looks at the net off of free kicks, but while his shots were far from poor, they never truly troubled Manuel Neuer. When you factor in that he couldn't draw any dangerous fouls or cards from his flopping and play-acting, it was a very quiet game from one of the best players in the world. As I said before, it will likely be a different story in Madrid due to a change in strategy, but again, let's not sleep on giving Bayern credit for what they've done thus far.

Frank Ribery is a Cheat

It's not often you can be playing in the same game as Christiano Ronaldo and somehow come across as the biggest diver, but congratulations Frank Ribery, you've done it! It started early when Ribery received the absolute minimum of contact from a Madrid defender in the box, took a step or two, realized that he was cut off from goal, and then went down as if someone had run a knife across the back of his hamstring. He didn't win a penalty for that, but he tried time and time again to draw fouls or, when the foul was called, draw cards for the fouler. If you don't understand the metaphor "rolling around like a pig in shit," by all means check the tape of Ribery from this game to see what it's all about. The shamelessness came to a head in the second half when a ball in the box obviously went off a defender's chest, yet Ribery, who was maybe two feet from the defender, dashed over to the nearest referee to emphatically whine, curse, and demonstrate how Real had gotten away with a handball in the box. Not only was the display laughable due to his over the top antics, but it was reprehensible as Ribery had perhaps the best view on the field of the play and still went through his high energy acting job. Unbelievable. It is a testament to Alvaro Arbeloa (matched up against Ribery down Real's right side for most of the game) that he never picked up a yellow card or lost his cool while dealing with Ribery's deceit. Speaking of the officiating...

Howard Webb Did a Fantastic Job as Referee in This Match

Given what's happened in soccer officiating news lately, especially in the English Premier League with fans of Chelsea acting as referees in Chelsea matches, it sounds strange to be praising an official's work during a match. Howard Webb deserves all accolades however as he kept control of a highly physical game, was neither too quick or too slow to dole out cards, and didn't miss a single important call. His assistants are due credit for their help of course, but Webb's control of the tone of the match was very important as a worse referee would have ruined the game with cards or let it get to the point where people were severely hurt on the field. Webb didn't fall for Ribery or Ronaldo's acting, but also held conversations with players or sternly told others to "cut the shit" (I'm paraphrasing here) when they started to get out of control. The result was a highly entertaining and contentious match that wasn't ruined by a terrible red, or completely slowed down by too much talking and warning, or tragic due to an injury, or laughable because of missed calls, or overly important due to players being suspended for the second leg. When you consider all of that together, Webb walked a very fine line the whole way through and came out close to perfect. Tip of the hat, sir.

All in all, it was a fantastic match to watch and I'm glad I took the time out to do so. I'm not certain due to time constraints that I will make one of these posts for today's Barcelona vs Chelsea match, but I felt like I had to for Real vs Bayern as it was excellent on so many levels. I hope you enjoyed this departure from our normal schedule and I hope to have an Arsenal post up later today to get us back on track. Thanks all.

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